Breaking Down the Future
As fans, the world of recruiting can be fun to follow and tough to swallow as the highs and lows create joy and frustration seemingly with every turn. For the coaches, their jobs, to a very real degree, depend on the recruiting process and the success it can bring by giving those coaches the "horses" to run a successful program on the court. That success, in the end, usually comes down to relationships, location, history, and playing time, all in varying degrees depending on the individual recruit's preferences.
To his credit, Bruce Weber has shown himself to be a very loyal man who cares deeply about his players and their careers after basketball. However, this loyalty can sometimes turn into a liability. The Eric Gordon situation is one example. Critics were loud when Gordon spurned Illinois at the last minute and signed up with Indiana. Even though some fans were calling for Weber to give up and start recruiting to replace Gordon, even before Gordon announced his decision, Weber never recruited over Gordon, because of his loyalties. Unfortunately for Illinois, that loyalty was not returned. The critics came out in full-force, but where was the credit for getting such a supremely talented player to choose Illinois in the first place?
Let's take a look at current Memphis point guard Derrick Rose. Here is an Illinois kid that received the royal treatment from Weber and his staff. But each time Rose dropped Illinois, Weber and his staff somehow came back into the picture. Each time Weber made it very clear how important Rose was for Illinois. However, like Gordon, Rose chose another school, which is surely the prerogative of any recruit. But should we fault Weber and the staff for pursuing such a talent, even if the player decides to go elsewhere? Would the fans be happier if they just quit trying?
Luckily, the staff never stopped working, putting in more and more work. It seems they even took a look at their approach and decided to move forward in a different manner, offering players at a younger age, something a lot of schools are doing these days. Based on the results Weber and his staff have achieved recently, it surely looks like the hard work is paying dividends and the new approach is a raging success. The Illini have verbal commitments for all available scholarships through the Class of 2010, from some of the very best players in the region. There is an adage popular around here: If the Illini could lock down the borders and get all the top players from the state, the Illini would compete for Final Fours and National Championships every year. Weber will surely test that adage in the coming years, because he and the staff have locked down the borders, getting the best players from the State of Illinois to stay at home and play for the Illini.
Here's a breakdown of the commits from the Class of 2008, ‘09, and ‘10. I've had the luxury of seeing most of them play in person, and the rest I've caught on tape. I've also included comments pulled directly from Scout.com, their parents, and their high school coaches.
Class of 2008, 6-9 220 center and a three-star recruit from Chicago Simeon. Recently, Simpson took on a strong Batavia team, collecting 23 points and cleaning the glass with 14 rebounds. Simpson is still a raw recruit with a huge upside to his game. He is still learning the nuances of the game, but his skill level and athleticism are remarkable for a kid his size, something that colleges around the country were drooling over. Simpson had scholarship offers from Arkansas, DePaul and Indiana. However, his high school coach said his most attractive quality is his work ethic and his ability to play with his back to the basket.
Class of 2009, 6-3 combo guard and a three-star recruit from Peoria High School. I've seen Richardson play several times starting back when he was in the 8th grade. To me, he is a lot like a bottle of fine wine: he gets better with age. Every single time I see him play, he gets better. Additionally, he comes from a great family and has great people surrounding him. As a player, Richardson is quick, strong, and has a knack for scoring. He's also very competitive and loves to win. As an example, he has worked very hard on all aspects of his game, especially the two supposed weaknesses he had as a sophomore: outside shooting and ball handling. Watching him now, as a junior, those concerns are things of the past. I believe D.J. will be the fan favorite when he arrives in Champaign because he is a great kid and loves the cameras.
By no means was Richardson a lock for Illinois, as he really liked Virginia. It was a close call, but he stayed home so his family could see him play on a regular basis. He had offers from a variety of programs, including Indiana, but in the end, Illinois was the place for him. "I liked what they are doing at Illinois. It's my home-state school, and with all the players coming down there, we should be able to get back to the Final Four again. They play an up tempo style of play and that's my game," said Richardson.
Class of 2009, 6-3 shooting guard, and a three-star recruit from Gurnee, IL, Warren Township High School. Paul is the one player that everyone thinks could be the sleeper in this entire class, and I agree. He's a fantastic athlete and can really shoot the ball with the best of them. Paul currently averages about 19.0 ppg, but could easily boost that up to north of 25 ppg. However, he's a very unselfish player. He also has some flare to his game that'll make you shake your head in disbelief. Paul attacks the basket and loves to dunk on people in traffic. And when the opposing team tries to take away the drive with a charge, Paul can pull up and make the mid-range jumper, an impressive ability for such a young player, and something very important in Weber's motion offense. No doubt, when Paul gets to campus, he will find a lot of points with those moves. According to his high school coach, Chuck Ramsey, his defense is getting better all the time. "He works hard on the defensive end of the floor and knows he must improve every year. We ask him to guard the other team's best player and also to carry the scoring load too. So far, he's done a great job for us," said Ramsey.
Class of 2009, 6-4 wing/guard and a four-star recruit from Sterling IL, High School. Bertrand is by far one of the most athletic players in the state. Joseph, along with future teammate Crandall Head, will have Big Ten coaches up at night trying to figure out a way to defend such athletic and long players. When I watch Bertrand play, moreso than the others, he just makes me want to see more. He's so smooth, has such a long wingspan, and shoots it a lot better than most would think possible. Joseph has that special something that just can't be taught. My favorite thought about Bertrand came when watching his team play during holidays in Bloomington, IL. While his team was trailing, I overheard some reporter say, "This kid is going to Illinois? Boy, I don't know." Shortly thereafter, Coach Peter Goff drew up a play for a lob-dunk. The pass was going high and out of bounds, but Joseph turned it up a notch and found a "gear" that few possess. He went up to grab this pass with two hands and his elbows were rim-level. Yes, his elbows, not his wrists. I looked at the reporter and he said "OK, I was wrong." Enough said.
Class of 2009, 6-8 forward and a four-star player from Ballwin, MO. Griffey just "officially" committed to the Illini last Saturday. I haven't been able to see him play in person, but I have watched the video footage available. To supplement, we talked with Tyler's father, Chris Griffey, and had him give us a scouting report on his son. "Well, first I'm a little biased because I'm his father (laugh) but Tyler's averaging 17.0 ppg, 9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. He's 6-8 with a 7-0 wingspan, so he is nice and long. Tyler has been a big kid his entire life and that's been good for him because he's always been coordinated. A lot of kids, when they are younger, have to grow into their bodies or wait to develop. Not Tyler, he was dunking a basketball in the 7th grade. When he was younger, I made him work on all parts of his game, and would not allow him to play just the post. He needed to learn how to shoot and put the ball on the floor. Now, he's good in the post with either hand and he can step out and hit the three. Coach Weber told him when get gets to Illinois he will play the three offensively but will have to learn how to defend the four. He's like most high school kids, he needs to work on his defense. I told him, playing Big Ten basketball you better be able to defend and he knows that. He's only a junior so he has two more years to work on it," said Tyler's dad.
Class of 2010, 6-4 (athlete) from Richton Park, IL. Right now, Head is listed as a four-star recruit but should be a five-star player before it's all said and done. While all the players mentioned above have "it," Crandall, to me, has something a little bit more and will be a truly special player. He's only a sophomore in high school now and is the younger brother of former Illini great, Luther Head, who I loved watching play. We all remember how well Luther developed and worked his way to become a first-round draft pick in the NBA. Well, Crandall is a player that can do it all and also has the potential to play at the next level, just like his older brother. His body already looks like one sported by a college junior, not a high school sophomore. He's strong and handles the ball very well and his confidence level can't be matched. Head knows he is good. Along with Bertrand, Head will cause a lot of college coaches some major headaches. By the time he's a senior in high school, Illinois fans will be glad he committed his sophomore year because every school in the country would be at his doorstep. But Head, in an earlier interview said, "I've always liked Illinois. It helps that my brother went there, but I like the players coming down there that I will be playing with. Once we all get down there, we should be able to do some pretty special things again for the fans of Illinois."
Class of 2010, 6-6 forward and a five-star recruit from Waukegan, IL. Let's face it, the true gem of this entire group is Jereme Richmond. While he's just a sophomore, he is already considered one of the best players in the state, regardless of class. Further, he is a consensus top 10 player in the nation for the Class of 2010. He is a "do-it-all" player, as complete of a player as I've seen in a long time. Getting Richmond at such an early age was huge for the program, as all the other recruits who committed have talked about their excitement to eventually play with Richmond when he gets to Champaign, and about what he can do on the court. Richmond is a difference maker, plain and simple. While most tall recruits mention that coordination is a struggle at such a young age, Richmond does not have that problem. He can handle the ball in the open court, block shots, make nice post moves, and, most impressively, Richmond has the ability to create his own shot at any time.
All of these young men and will flourish in Weber's motion offense. Putting a lot of pressure on these young athletes, at such a young age, may not be fair, but it comes with the territory for highly ranked players. That said, Richmond will be the next great player at Illinois and the one that fans beg to stick around for more than just one year of college. The argument can be made that either D.J. Richardson or Brandon Paul started this recruiting hot streak for Weber, but really it was Richmond. Without his commitment, it is likely that this dream class would be markedly different. All great college teams seem need that one kid that can change a game through sheer will and skill. Without a doubt, Richmond will be that player for the Illini. And luckily for Illini fans, the other recruits are not that far away from being the type of special players that will propel Illinois back to the top of the basketball world.
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